It all started with the tragic death of a teenage boy attending a village dance in southern France. Although the circumstances surrounding his death remain unclear, members of France’s ultra-right immediately blamed it on “anti-French” sentiment, descending on the region en masse to avenge his death.
Witnesses described a rare and frightening scene: A hundred or so ultra-right activists, many of them armed and masked, gathered in the small town of Romans-sur-Isère on Saturday to avenge the death of 16-year-old Thomas. The rugby-playing high-schooler died from his wounds on November 19 after being stabbed in the nearby village of Crépol during a brawl that allegedly broke out between some dance attendees and a group that arrived by car at the end of the dance. Nine people have been arrested in connection with the killing.
One France expert warned of the ultra-right’s growing capacity to organise and sow discord based on the flimsiest of evidence.
Although the regional prosecutor, Laurent de Caigny, has said the fight does not appear to have been a premeditated attack based on “race, ethnicity, nationality or religion”, nine out of 104 witnesses said they heard hostile comments about “White people” during the fight.
These reports enraged France’s far right, prompting National Rally leader Marine Le Pen to brand it as an “organised attack” and her niece, far-right politician Marion Maréchal, to denounce it as “anti-White racism”.
Ultra-right groups saw it as a call to arms, with some members exhorting fellow “patriots” to “make the aggressors pay” for Thomas’s death.
‘Very scary moment’
A protest took place on Saturday in Romans-sur-Isère’s mainly immigrant neighbourhood of La Monnaie, where some of the suspects in his death are believed to reside. But what stood out was that participants had descended from “the four corners of France” and that the protest had taken less than a week to organise.
“We saw people from Besançon, from Paris, from Montpellier and from Nantes coming together,” said Andrew Smith, a historian at Queen Mary University of London and a specialist in modern France.
“I think it’s a very scary moment for what it says about the capacity of quite extreme political movements to organise and project that kind of street violence onto the streets of France,” he said, referring to the many altercations with police that ensued, and the detention of more than two dozen activists, many of them belonging to the violent ultra-right group Division Martel.
At least six of those arrested were sentenced on Monday to between six and 10 months in prison, including for armed attacks on police, in a series of fast-track court hearings earlier this week.
A police source told AFP the extreme-right activists had specifically targeted the Monnaie neighbourhood in a bid to fight with some of the immigrant youths living there.
“The far right has essentially drummed up a militia,” Smith said, adding that their goal was to “drive a violent assault against what they perceive to be something related to immigration”.
More and more organised
French investigative website Mediapart noted that the extreme right’s ability to organise itself like it did in Romans-sur-Isère is a relatively new phenomenon, but it is not the first time.
Late last year, around 40 ultra-right activists were arrested in Paris over alleged plans to carry out a racist attack on Morocco football fans who had gathered on the Champs-Élysées to watch the semi-finals against France. Many of them, of which at least a dozen were flagged as “Fiche S” – or a potential security threat – had travelled to the French capital from other parts of France.
“When violent actions are planned, they usually bring together individuals from the same city or the same region,” a police source told Mediapart at the time. “In this case, 40-odd men from different areas of France responded to the call. It’s rare, if not unique.”
Since then, the pattern has been repeated in at least a handful of cases.
In the beginning of the year, the small town of Callac in Brittany abandoned a special project to take in refugees after city officials received death and rape threats from members of extreme-right groups from across the country.
In April, the tiny seaside town of Saint-Brevin became the scene of violent scuffles after ultra-right activists from other cities joined a demonstration protesting the setting up of a reception centre for asylum seekers.
Smith said the main reason for the ultra right to get involved in violent protests like the one in Romans-sur-Isère is to “push ideas of inter-community violence”.
French Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin announced on Tuesday he was seeking to ban three right-wing extremist groups, including Division Martel, warning that “there is a mobilisation within the extreme right that would have us tip into civil war”.